Tuesday, September 8, 2020


As the summer of pandemic fades toward fall, federal and state governments are still groping for the key to beating the killer coronavirus. Social distancing serves as the default recommendation, and a combination of mandatory and voluntary sequesters have forced millions of Americans to stay home. Examining the results after six months, some of the most militant lockdowns have chalked up the worst outcomes. Better advice may have been to lock up the refrigerator: Records show that COVID-19 has found its easiest target with individuals suffering from obesity, a health vulnerability often worsened by inactivity.

Stay-at-home orders haven’t necessarily kept citizens safe from the virus, according to a study by the analytics firm TrendMacro. Coronavirus statistics from state and local health departments were correlated with area lockdown rules, which were checked against anonymous cellphone tracking data. The conclusion: “States with longer, stricter lockdowns also had larger COVID outbreaks,” writes company CIO Donald Luskin in The Wall Street Journal. “The five places with the harshest lockdowns — the District of Columbia, New York, Michigan, New Jersey and Massachusetts — had the heaviest caseloads.”

Rather than simply staying home, Americans seem to have a better shot at beating COVID-19 by staying healthy. A recent Kaiser Permanente study of patient records published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that patients who contract the virus have a greater risk of death if they are severely obese. Data from nearly 7,000 infected patients shows that overweight subjects with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 to 44 face a risk of death double that of persons in the normal BMI range of 18.5 to 24. Patients with a BMI of 45 or higher have a risk that doubles again.

There have been reports that Black and Hispanic communities have suffered higher coronavirus death counts, but Kaiser Permanente found no such connection. Rather, the most recurrent factor found among sufferers — surpassing even cardiovascular disease and diabetes as dangerous underlying conditions — is severe obesity. COVID-19 puts a strain on the pulmonary system by causing fluid to leak into the lungs. Abdominal fat forces the lungs stressed by disease to work even harder.

With the U.S. coronavirus death count approaching 190,000, the obesity factor can only serve as a shock to Americans fighting a battle of the bulge: Between 1999 and 2018, the proportion of adults joining the ranks of the obese surged from 30.5% to 42.4%, and those categorized as severely obese rose from 4.7% to 9.2%.

Quarantining the ill and elderly is good policy, but keeping the weight-challenged homebound and within easy reach of the fridge may be counterproductive. The skinny on the virus says the best way to cheat death is to shed those excess pounds.

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